Ever since Bethesda Softworks announced Starfield, I have longed for it. Space games have always been a hit and miss for me. I loved the idea of exploring in No Man’s Sky, but the management was too much. I loved the Star Wars Squadron‘s concept, but the controls and visuals for flight threw me. Since seeing Starfield gameplay shown at the Xbox Bethesda showcase, I am once again hoping for the space exploration game of my dreams, but hopefully one with accessibility in mind.
We’re still a way off before Starfield is available, it was due to launch this year, but a recent delay has pushed it to 2023. With this in mind, what was shown for accessibility feels quite lacking almost despite my hype for the game itself being at a high as I write this. My concerns are also conflicted as this was a showcase, so what was shown is obviously going to be cinematic and default. However, now that Bethesda and its studios are under the Xbox banner, I am hoping Xbox’s prominent push for accessibility will have rubbed off. So here’s what I thought about what was shown.
One of the first gameplay sequences we see is a ship landing on a planet where 2 mechs walk out onto the barren land — one of those being you, the player. Already, Starfield shows some accessibility worries. In the bottom-left, there’s a circular element with tiny text that seems to signify oxygen levels. Then, there’s even smaller text in the bottom-right that details the equipped weapon, ammunition, and health.
The player walks toward some vegetation with the scanner equipped and we’re introduced to a number of legibility concerns. Here we see a survey scanner with text that blends into the background’s overexposed sky. The text itself across the board here could be made clearer if it was a touch thicker, and the only parts that feel properly legible for me are the white boxes with black text.
The distance counter in the middle of the scanner is practically non-existent due to thin text and off-white that blends with the washed-out scene. The outlines for the root being scanned however are nice! A later scene shows the scanner highlighting more environment elements and they’re quite nicely presented.
Of course, again, the issue is with the legibility, as you can see below. Practically all information to the left becomes hard to read due to the contrast issues.
The new location discovered prompt feels somewhat nice. A nice dark background for the text containing the name of the location appears, then a smaller prompt to identify that it’s a “Location Discovered” achievement. With any luck, players would be able to adjust how long the notification remains on the screen, similar to how games like Sea of Thieves allow timing adjustments.
We also get a sneaky peek at the quick selection option. You’ll be able to open this area and choose weapons from your inventory. However, while the background goes a lot darker here with a full-screen effect, the text is still incredibly small and thin. There’s also the colored text that doesn’t really blend that well with the background.
From the times we were shown this weapon wheel in action the actual gameplay speed is reduced. It’s not paused, but it is reduced enough for players to choose from their options without the rush of real-time gameplay stressing them out.
Starfield continues throwing its illegibility concerns at us when we’re shown combat in action. The enemies have a small health bar, a small name, and what I assume is an enemy power/rank number, all floating over them and tracked to their movement. Personally, enemy information presented in this way isn’t wonderful for me because I feel as if I’m struggling to read everything when it’s bobbing around the screen.
There did seem to be a lack of a damage indicator for directionality, when under fire, but again, this was a showcase, so maybe it was turned off. At one point, the player throws a frag grenade, and an icon of a grenade with an arrow appears in the central area of the screen and flashes red and white. So really, there are some directional damage warning indications.
Later the gameplay shows a damage indicator popping up when the player is attacked by a beast of sorts.
Another thing I noticed. That round bottom-left oxygen level thing? That doubles up as a compass with a directional enemy indicator. The disappointing thing is that the red enemy dots are incredibly hard to make out. There also look to be other icons that point to items or areas of interest, but seeing them clearly is a challenge in itself. Where is my top-of-the-screen Skyrim-inspired compass!?
In the above image, you can also see an objective prompt that doesn’t actually detail what the update is, instead it just details what mission name has been updated. My assumption is players would have to navigate to the game’s menu areas to find out.
Starfield, like most Bethesda titles, has a pick locking feature. It’s not much of a surprise to see one appear in this gameplay, but it does look a bit…complicated. The case the player is attempting to unlock has a difficulty level which usually means players have to upgrade their skills to pick higher-level locks with more ease.
In this case, we see the player trying to line some digital pins up with some digital openings around a ring. The interface also has an auto-slot feature with a number. This also indicates players will be able to purchase, or find, auto-lock pick…things. Interestingly, there’s also an “Undo” counter which looks to offer a select number of retries. Who knows, maybe easier difficulties or adjustable settings will allow us to make this unlimited, or skip lock picking entirely like Marvel’s Spider-Man.
A Vast Galaxy
Just before the showcase came to an end, we got to see an example of the scale of the universe that Starfield has to offer. For most space exploration games, this is always overwhelming for me, and Starfield looks no different. We were shown what looks like a map screen where you can zoom in and out of the solar system area, and one part in particular shows an interface with more tiny text.
Of course, this part feels a bit more legible for the contrast, but a thicker font and larger text should make for a more legible experience. The interface itself is fairly lacking for this area, feeling like a more cinematic imagining of a map screen without much clutter. Really though, I want to see clear, concise clutter that’s legible. And I also don’t want to struggle to see hundreds of systems through hard-to-read text.
The showcase also teased what you can customize in Starfield, but it also gives us an idea of what to expect from the game’s menu aesthetic. That aesthetic is an off-white/green with a faded black for text elements.
The text itself is small across the board, once again, and the highlighted selection elements aren’t abundantly obvious. You’ll see in the image below, “Cyberneticist” is highlighted in the list, but the highlighted background is only slightly brighter. Oh, and the button prompts are monochromatic and stylized.
While we didn’t get to see too much character creation, we saw some. Players can adjust a number of physical elements as well as other skills such as speech, intelligence, etc. The body type options don’t appear to use gender-specific options, instead, body types. Then you can fiddle with a wheel to choose from muscular, thin, and heavy builds. There are other areas, but we weren’t shown those during the showcase.
Crafting and Ships
As I opened this article, management is what made No Man’s Sky feel too much for me. It appears Starfield will be the same as players can craft and create entire bases. The interface here feels very overwhelming for me and also complicated to navigate. Of course, without actually testing this, that’s just my assumption.
There’s a similar system as well for building and creating your own spacecraft. I’ll be honest, it looks awful. The interface for this section is a lot of thin white text on a blue background.
There are a lot of columns in the top-left that have abbreviations, the information about what looks like Hull strength, shield levels, etc looks like bad contrasting colors are in play, and the button prompts. Well, just look. Horribly thin iconography that focuses more on stylization than legibility.
It wouldn’t be a space game if you couldn’t fly. In Starfield, we’re shown flight where players are engaged in combat and I’m really not a fan. The enemy names and health bars carry on their illegibility from ground combat, and there appears to be a fair bit going on with the HUD and throwing information at you. Target locking is nice to see, but this appears to be for missiles rather than allowing for auto-aim for example.
I have a feeling that I’m going to come to dislike the flight gameplay for the same reason I disliked Star Wars Squadrons. The camera is too locked, the whole 3D maneuvering confuses me, and the information being displayed overwhelms me.
I’m still incredibly excited for Starfield and what it may offer for accessibility. I know the showcase gameplay is going to be at its cinematic best to cater for the blockbuster presentation it’s going for.
However, non-diegetic elements of gameplay shown during the videos in which information is conveyed to the player feel like Starfield will once again be another game that has put immersion first. Having legible and useful information feels as if it’s been shoved aside to make way for intrusive-free gameplay where players feel they are in a cinematic game.
The compass design and subtle directional indicators look as if I’m going to have a hard time with exploration and understanding incoming dangers. While I hope I can skip the air combat, it looks like it’ll be integral to gameplay which means awkward controls more than likely. And there appears to be a lot of information to process at any given time, from scanners, crafting, management, etc.
I’m excited for Starfield, but I am a bit concerned.